Articles | Volume 12, issue 24
Research article
19 Dec 2012
Research article |  | 19 Dec 2012

Climate versus emission drivers of methane lifetime against loss by tropospheric OH from 1860–2100

J. G. John, A. M. Fiore, V. Naik, L. W. Horowitz, and J. P. Dunne

Abstract. With a more-than-doubling in the atmospheric abundance of the potent greenhouse gas methane (CH4) since preindustrial times, and indications of renewed growth following a leveling off in recent years, questions arise as to future trends and resulting climate and public health impacts from continued growth without mitigation. Changes in atmospheric methane lifetime are determined by factors which regulate the abundance of OH, the primary methane removal mechanism, including changes in CH4 itself. We investigate the role of emissions of short-lived species and climate in determining the evolution of methane lifetime against loss by tropospheric OH, (τCH4_OH), in a suite of historical (1860–2005) and future Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP) simulations (2006–2100), conducted with the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL) fully coupled chemistry-climate model (CM3). From preindustrial to present, CM3 simulates an overall 5% increase in τCH4_OH due to a doubling of the methane burden which offsets coincident increases in nitrogen oxide (NOx emissions. Over the last two decades, however, the τCH4_OH declines steadily, coinciding with the most rapid climate warming and observed slow-down in CH4 growth rates, reflecting a possible negative feedback through the CH4 sink. Sensitivity simulations with CM3 suggest that the aerosol indirect effect (aerosol-cloud interactions) plays a significant role in cooling the CM3 climate. The projected decline in aerosols under all RCPs contributes to climate warming over the 21st century, which influences the future evolution of OH concentration and τCH4_OH. Projected changes in τCH4_OH from 2006 to 2100 range from −13% to +4%. The only projected increase occurs in the most extreme warming case (RCP8.5) due to the near-doubling of the CH4 abundance, reflecting a positive feedback on the climate system. The largest decrease occurs in the RCP4.5 scenario due to changes in short-lived climate forcing agents which reinforce climate warming and enhance OH. This decrease is more-than-halved in a sensitivity simulation in which only well-mixed greenhouse gas radiative forcing changes along the RCP4.5 scenario (5% vs. 13%).

Final-revised paper